Important Things I Learned from First Graders When I Was Forty

Thirty-five years ago when I taught a combined first and second grade class, it was an unparalleled opportunity to see human beings in an unvarnished state. At that time children weren’t being sent to daycare at birth, and kindergartens were non-existent in small towns and rural areas like ours, so the strongest influence in most of my young students’ lives had been a relatively accepting and affirming mother or grandmother. The children hadn’t been lacquered with social conformity yet and their unique personalities and ways of responding to life hadn’t been labeled or graded.  It was an amazing experience of the delightful, though challenging, diversity in human nature. Seeking different approaches to teaching, so the explosive joy of learning could happen for each child, was a fascinating puzzle.

The effects of prior influences such as family economics were definitely identifiable, but still somewhat malleable.

When Larry, a well scrubbed youngster with a home haircut and rural speech patterns, was obviously being excluded from group play at recess, I checked it out. David, the local bank president’s son explained simply, “We don’t play with the Crocketts.” But when I said gently, but firmly, “Here, you do,” he and his peers accepted it cheerfully, glad enough to have another male team member in a class where girls outnumbered boys. They didn’t need much encouragement to let gender outweigh adult social divisions.

Larry was already a survivor. If he hadn’t lived on a dirt road that ran through a creek, he would have been called street smart.  He had a pragmatic approach to coming up with answers.  When he was put on the spot, you could see him scanning the room for clues, the alphabet around the black board, the bulletin board for words, the clock for numbers, and as a last resort, his neighbor’s paper. If even that failed, he would simply invent an answer. Often they were close enough to count.

Another child, Peter, taught me a lot about the influences of birth order in the family.  He was a funny, loveable, cowboy-booted second grader, who was the youngest of eight children. My primary education classes had stressed that the timing of birthdates in the calendar year could make a child, particularly a boy, unready developmentally for particular learning tasks.

When the time came to begin cursive writing instruction, Peter’s uncontrolled scrawl in printing cast serious doubt on his fine muscle control.  Since several late enrollees in second grade had left us short of cursive writing workbooks, I decided to solve both problems by holding Phillip back on starting cursive writing. Unfortunately, I had already given out the workbooks, so this meant taking Peter’s back to give it to the latest newcomer.

The next morning Phillip’s distraught mother came to me before class, describing Peter’s tearful outrage over losing his book, his very own personal book that already had his name on it. He had cried himself to sleep and for the first time didn’t eagerly rush to get ready for school.

I took Peter to the teacher’s lounge and apologized with deep regret for taking his book away.  But, I pointed out how uneven and hard to read his printing was and told him that we needed to work on that before he had to struggle with an even more difficult style of writing.  I gave him his cursive book back, along with some extra printing practice pages, and challenged him to practice extra hard on printing so I could move him into cursive as soon as possible. That evening I stayed late carefully copying and running off mimeographed pages from the cursive book for the newcomer. (There were no scanner/printers back then.)

The next morning to my amazement, Phillip brought in several sheets of perfect printing.  In the following days everything Peter printed was perfectly shaped, sized, and spaced.  By the end of the week, Peter successfully moved into cursive writing.

Motivation is an wondrous thing.

The problem is that individuals vary greatly in what it takes to motivate them and as teachers, we tend to use the approach that works on us.  As the youngest child in a large family, Peter was the pet, adored and babied by all.  He had never been pushed to meet external expectations.  He taught me that my personal style of motivating only by affirmation might not always be appropriate.

As the saying goes, “Some people need to see the lightOthers need to feel the heat!”

At the same time, I wasn’t the only teacher learning new things.  Our third and fourth grade teacher, a somewhat prissy young man just out of college, learned the hard way not to let a tiny nervous overachiever named Meredith sit on his teacher manuals while under the stress of taking tests.  I nearly choked trying to stifle my laughter when he called me out into the hall in a state of indignant horror.  I don’t know what he did while his new manuals were being ordered, but he definitely wasn’t interested in drying out his old ones!

The Merediths with nervous bladders are already overburdened by inner pressure, but the Peters will coast and underachieve without an external push.  Motivating is half the battle in teaching.

Millie, a beautiful child with huge brown eyes, had no known father and a teenage mother who had run away from the responsibility of parenting.  But her grandmother and extended family came to all teacher conferences, programs, field days, and often to even have lunch with her. Toward the end of first grade, I began to chide Millie gently about not finishing her math work.

“Oh, Mrs Norman,” she responded. “I’m very good at reading.  Do I have to be good at everything?”

Though fortunately unexpressed, my gut-level response was, “Of course!”

My particular personality, reinforced by a strongly academic father, had bred in me a strong need to excel in everything. I hadn’t always succeeded, but at that moment, I recognized how compulsive I still was about trying.  For the first time in my life, I questioned just how reasonable this compulsion really is.  So, I hesitated and gave the question serious consideration.  After a moment, I replied, “No, Millie, you don’t have to be as good in math, but there are a lot of things in life that take at least knowing how to add and subtract, even fun things like shopping.  You need to keep on trying; don’t give up.” She seemed to accept that and went back to work on her math paper. In later years when teaching older students with learning disabilities, I used menus from McDonalds in teaching both reading and math.  It at least gave them a reason they understood to struggle to learn something that was so frustrating for them.

Richard, a newcomer late in my second year of teaching, was repeating first grade.   He seemed intelligent, but definitely not inclined to do his work. In reading group his mind was obviously far away, even though he needed to be listening to gain familiarity with many of the words.  I took him aside and asked him why he didn’t listen in reading group to help himself recognize the words when it was his turn.  He said the stories were boring and he had already heard them all.  I laughed, which obviously surprised him.  So I explained, “Richard, how many times do you think I’ve heard these stories?  Don’t you think I find them boring?”  He looked puzzled and didn’t reply.  “Richard, I have five children of my own that have brought these same books home to read to me. Then, I heard them all at least twice again last year, and now am hearing them over this year.  Richard, these stories were boring the first time I heard them.  Sometimes I want to scream out loud, when I have to listen to them again. Do you know why I keep listening?”  Richard shook his head, big-eyed with amazement.  “I do it because I want you to learn to read.  I want you to soon be able to read interesting, even exciting, books you enjoy.  If I care enough about you learning to read to put up with hours and hours of listening to boring stories that I’ve heard over and over, shouldn’t you care enough to listen for your own sake?”  Richard looked thoughtful and finally nodded.  “OK, Richard, you are going to try hard to listen and watch the words so you will remember them and learn how to read better stories and I am going to listen and try hard not to scream.”  Somewhat to my surprise, Richard did try harder and did begin to read better.  I don’t think it had ever occurred to him that a teacher could be as bored as he was, yet keep on listening for his sake.

Janette, whose parents didn’t even realize it, came into first grade reading on at least an eighth grade level.  I quickly put her to finding her own library books to read at her seat while the rest of the class was doing reading readiness work.  But, Janette was an extrovert who loved working in a group and getting good feedback for her correct answers, so I let her work in the group two days and read on her own the other three.  As I began to teach math however, I discovered that having taught herself to read, Janette experienced needing to be taught math or even techniques in art as being stupid. She  mentally blocked out my explanations.  She felt she had to puzzle out everything on her own.  And when she couldn’t make her art look as good as her friend’s, she simply turned off to art.

One day she even had a meltdown in the lunch room, because previously having always brought her lunch, she didn’t know to carry her tray to the kitchen window.  When we lined up to return to class, I requested that whoever had left their tray, please carry it to the window.  Janette returned to the table, but stood frozen in humiliation with tears streaming down her face.  Before I could figure out how to help her, the principal came in and asked loudly, “What’s the matter with you, Janette?  The class is waiting on you.”  When Janette didn’t respond, the principal berated her, reminding her that her parents would be very disappointed in her for acting like that.” Janette remained frozen and mute.  I didn’t know how to intervene at that point, so I just took the rest of the class back to the classroom out of hearing.  Eventually Janette reappeared, red-faced but no longer crying. She was subdued and mute the rest of the day.  She also brought her lunch from home the rest of the year.

For me, the whole experience was like seeing my childhood pass before my eyes:  The years of learning everything the hard way.  Of feeling stupid if I didn’t learn something easily and quickly, of completely turning off to art, because it didn’t come naturally to me and I couldn’t start out as one of the best.  I recognized then that some of us are either born, or have become by first grade, unteachable.  Self-taught doesn’t just apply to the unschooled.

Twenty years later I read about right-brain and left-brain modes of learning and that there were ways to get into right-brain mode for drawing and painting.  So at sixty I took up art, knowing that mine would start out as the worst in the class, but finally believing it was not only possible to learn, but it really was all right to have to be taught.  A couple of years later, when my art teacher was moving to another city, she asked if she could use my sketch from the first day of her class along with the picture of my two-year-old great-grandson that I had done at the end of the nine-week course, as an advertisement for her classes.   Since this captured perhaps my greatest accomplishment, becoming teachable, I gladly gave her permission.

So not only are teachers challenged to teach, but also to find ways to help the unteachable accept being taught.

As an extrovert myself, I love hot teaching both as a student and a teacher.  Hot teaching is where the teacher throws out a question or a controversial statement and the students shout out answers or arguments and a fast-paced discussion is kept up with everyone joining in whenever they want.  It’s noisy, fast, and sometimes funny, but since extroverts need to say things to even know what they are thinking, this is extrovert heaven.  Of course it is at the same time, introvert hell.  Introverts need time to figure out what they think and even more time to figure out the best way to express it.  By the time they get it together, the extroverts have moved on to something else.  I still would want to at least sometimes balance the working alone times, teacher monologues, and teacher controlled dialogues with some hot teaching.  But I did discover that I had created a monster for the teachers of the higher grades.  Years later I ran into the fifth grade teacher and he asked, “How in the world did you teach Janette, Dolly, and Serena?  Did you just let them shout out answers whenever they felt like it?”  Of course, that was exactly what I had done, though just in  designated group times.

I had developed my own strategies for switching back and forth between traditional and more free-wheeling times in the classroom. I developed learning centers and allowed the students to go quietly to them whenever they finished their workbook exercises while I was working with other groups. Since Peter Pan was a current movie favorite, when I wanted everyone back into their seats quickly, I called out, “ALLIGATOR!”  Once a child was back in their seat, they were allowed to start saying, “Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock” until the last child was in their seat.  They got into the spirit of this so much, they sat with their feet up off the floor out of the alligator infested water,  until we stopped the chant.  Of course, the underlying assumption was that the last child was alligator lunch.

That generation of children didn’t seem nearly as susceptible to terror as mine had been.  They loved catching flies to feed to our class pet, a venus flytrap. But during my second year of teaching, I had to give this up.  Several months into the year, many of the children came in telling me with big eyes and stricken voices of the story on the evening news about a child in Florida actually being eaten by an alligator. Our game had suddenly become too real for comfort.

Though my class of twenty-five students would be considered a small group, it encompassed two grades.  Normally both first and second grade students would have at least twenty minute reading group time with the teacher each day.  That meant the least amount of reading groups with approximately the same level of skill would be two to each grade.  And then there would be  several students needing more help than that.  And with two grades, the most advanced group of the first grade learns very differently than those needing the most help in second grade, so even those can’t be grouped together.  In primary grades the basics like reading, math, and phonics/language skills need to be taught in the morning when young students (and older teachers) are fresh. Time for four to five reading groups, two periods of math, two periods of teaching phonics/spelling/language skills is a squeeze.

I alleviated some of this pressure by recruiting parent volunteers to listen to the more advanced groups read in the cafeteria. I also used them with one or two less skilled readers at a time.  This inclusion of both advanced and slower children kept the time with volunteers  from carrying any sort of label for the children.

A wonderful serendipity for me personally was discovering that I could also use grandmothers for this.

My own mother had come to live with us in the country, because she was beginning to have problems functioning on her own in the fast pace of Houston, Texas.  We didn’t even know the name Alzheimer’s then, but later realized that she was in the early stages at that point.  We knew she needed to stop driving, but this left her stuck out in the middle of nowhere by herself all day, week after week.   Since she had taught secretarial skills in a business college,  I tentatively tried bringing her to school with me three days a week.  It turned out that she related wonderfully to the children.  They all pleaded for chances to read to her. I suspect she had a stash of sweet rewards in her purse.

As the mother of five, I too had learned that with young children, the more immediate and appealing the reward, the better the chance of reinforcing the behavior. So, I started my teaching career with a desk drawer full of candy mints.  They were popular, cheap, and not messy.  After a couple of weeks, Serena, a particularly energetic second grader, arrived at school with a sack of sugarfree mints for me to use for her rewards.  At first, it hit me as kind of pitiful and ironic that she was furnishing her own rewards, but she seemed perfectly happy with this. And the blessing for me was that I recognized the advantage of sugarfree treats.  Adding to the energy level of first and second graders isn’t something a forty-year-old teacher wants to do.

I also discovered fairly early on that some children have two-track minds.  I guess they would be today’s multi-taskers.  But, when they are being expected to sit still and just listen, if you don’t find a way to keep the other track busy, they will find a way that distracts the other students.  I am disconcerted by students not looking at me when I am speaking. But I found by randomly asking for feedback while allowing those children to doodle, that they actually were hearing what I was saying. When it was time for important instructions, I would just say, “OK, Let me see your baby blues and browns.”   That reassured me and focused any dreamers.

I wish now for the sake of a first grader that came to our school late in the year,  that we had known at least what we do now about Autism.  Ernie, like Janette, came in already reading anything and everything.  But he read with rapid-fire, machine gun speed without inflection and without any understanding of the meaning.  I did not have a clue what to do.  And to add to the problem, when I gave instructions or told him to clean up the mess under his desk, he just stared at me like a deer in the headlights.  Obviously, he was not processing what I was saying.  I spent  time condensing paragraphs to one or two sentences  and creating simple questions for a volunteer to use with Ernie on comprehension.  We started this too late in the year to see much result, but I realize now from having a granddaughter with Autism, that he needed much more extensive and basic language therapy than we knew about then. I often wonder where Ernie is now and how he has fared.

My first year I was totally unprepared for a phenomenon that occurred around eight weeks into the school year.  For many, though unfortunately not all, there’s a magic moment in learning to read.  The parts seem to come together and the mind simply “gets it.”   It’s awesome. That first year it happened simultaneously for a group of the first graders.  Several students came up to me, exclaiming excitedly, “Mrs. Norman, I can read!  Listen!  I can read.”  And they could, smoothly and with expression that showed understanding.  Before long most of the first graders were reading out loud at whatever their level of skill was with great enthusiasm to anyone willing to listen.  I jettisoned the lesson plans and declared it “Reading Day.”  Everyone was allowed to find a book they could read either at their seat or in a group.  The second graders got into the spirit and made themselves available for consultation on difficult words.  Even the first graders, who weren’t “there” yet, seemed infected with reading fever and were willing to give it their all.  Nobody even wanted to stop for lunch.  They all complained when I told them to line up.

It was a joyous and memorable moment.

But at the end of the year, tests showed that more children than should be were reading below level. No one turned off to learning in my classes, but I knew that when they could not manage content focused materials in later grades, they would.  I was a conscientious and creative teacher.  I loved the children and they loved me.   The parents loved me and the principal loved me. But I was not the right teacher for basic skills such as reading and math.

I learn by grasping concepts and then connecting details to the relevant concepts.   I scan material for ideas without reading every word.  Repetition bores me silly, particularly of details.  My mind makes connections without having to consciously go through consecutive steps.

Most people do not learn this way.  About eighty percent learn linearly, step by step.  Also,  for them repetition is the soul of scholarship.  The few of my students whose minds worked like mine raced ahead of grade level, learning joyously almost on their own.   But the majority struggled, since I found it almost impossible to explain things in ways they could understand and because I did not stress repetition of detail nearly enough.  To the detriment of those students, it took me two years to realize this.  A reality that makes me sad even now.

When I gave notice because I didn’t feel I was the right person for teaching basic skills, the principal, school board, and parents wanted me to teach third and fourth grade.  But, when I thought of those delightful children, whom I truly loved, having me for four years in a row, I regretfully declined.

Years later, I studied Carl Jung’s personality types and became a consultant on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  There is a lot of relevant research on the effects of mismatched teaching/learning styles.  It demonstrates clearly why I was wrong for the task, though not for the children.

About Eileen

Mother of five, grandmother of nine, great-grandmother of five. 1955 -1959 Rice University in Houston, TX. Taught primary grades; Was Associate Post Director of Religious Education at Ft. Campbell, KY; Consultant on the Myers/Briggs Type Indicator, Was married for 60 years to an Architect in Middle Tennessee.

Posted on March 23, 2016, in Teaching/Learning Experiences and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Enjoyable read! I can see these children in my mind…

    As someone who has never been an educator (and VERY decidedly never wanted to!) and isn’t so close to the day-to-day goings-on in a classroom environment, this is eye-opening. We hear about all the standards and bureaucracy within the public and private school systems now, and I wonder what teachers with heart — as clearly, you were — are to do now about the students that are thrown under the bus in terms of policy.

    I wish there were simple answers.


  2. Congratulations, Eileen! You did it and did it well!


  3. Sandy Maniaci

    Very entertaining and enlightening, reminds of my subbing days! Lol


  4. Deetra Sternall

    Wow! Your very own blog! I am so happy for you and inspired….however I have been too busy to write anything except these comments on people’s blogs and posts!! Hope to see you Wednesday!! My writers email address is!


  5. Betty Harper

    Oops! Makes me wonder how effective I was as an educator…. Well, maybe passion for learning carries us through. Loved reading this. I have two granddaughters with very different learning/social styles. Just being “the grandmother” causes me to stretch my style with them. Thanks for reminding me how important it is to see things from their perspective and through their needs.


  6. I can really relate not only through work experiences but with my own children. Right now trying to get a teenager and preteen to read anything that doesn’t have a controller is the hardest. But our new find is the free WHEELS AND DEALS magazine. They look at what cars they like read the names, figure math problems with pricing and even learn geography with the addresses (they look them up and calculate how far the drive would be). Sssshhhhhh…..I don’t think they know that their learning.


  7. Reblogged this on Laughter: Carbonated Grace and commented:

    Reblogging some of my early posts written when I only had a handful of followers.


  8. This is a very interesting piece Eileen.


  9. Amazing, wish there were more teachers like you where I was growingup.


  10. This was an enjoyable to read, I scarcely noticed how long it is.

    Many points to ponder, but this got me:
    ” … as teachers, we tend to use the approach that works on us.”

    Not only teachers, humans in general, I guess. We need to train ourselves to use what works for other people.

    Your candour and vulnerability are refreshing. You admitted what you did right and what you could’ve done better. I admire your resoluteness in quitting when you realized you couldn’t add value the way the children deserved, although you were asked to continue.


  11. Unvarnished is right. When I taught in the schools, I watched the (female) teachers behave worse than their students when it came to their peers (not to mention those who couldn’t spell). I love how the kids went on to play with the Crocketts at your gentle and firm encouragement. That shows me that much of snootiness is just learned behavior (a mimic of parents) and how tender they still really are to right proddings. And how creative you were in the efforts to reach your kids. I would’ve loved to use a McD menu in school.


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